This story is part of the New Boom series on millennials in America.
A recent Pew study found that millennials are more likely to have read a book in the past year than Americans over the age of 30. The finding flies in the face of a popular critique of millennials: that all they consume is Internet frippery — listicles, parodies, memes and quizzes.
But the two aren't mutually exclusive — there's a corner of the Internet where millennials are making viral content that is decidedly bookish. When Kanye West released "Bound 2" last year, the music video — which has Kim Kardashian doing a lot of blinking and bouncing on a motorcycle — became instant fodder for parodies by the likes of South Park and Saturday Night Live. But you might have missed "Hardcover Bound 2," a parody by Annabelle Quezada and La Shea Delaney that replaces rhymes about Kardashian with lines about books.
Quezada and Delaney's first spoof was of West and Jay-Z's "Ni - - as In Paris." It all started when Delaney tweeted: "Read so hard librarians tryin' to fine me." At the time, she lived in New York, where she got her MFA and taught English.
"I tweeted that and fell asleep," Delaney says. "And I feel like a day later Annabelle had texted me and said, 'I have lyrics, let's shoot a video.' "
"We were bookifying everything," says Quezada, a freelance filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn. For example, when Jay-Z shouts out celebrities with the first name Michael — Jackson, Tyson, Jordan — Quezada nods to writers who went by William — Burroughs, Golding, Shakespeare.
Quezada and Delaney aren't the only ones making smart Internet content disguised as the more frivolous stuff that floats through our feeds. For the website The Millions, Janet Potter rewrote the titles of classic novels as click-bait headlines.
"So, for example," Potter says, "you would see the cover of Moby Dick but we've taken out the headline ... and instead it says: They Told Him White Whales Were Impossible to Hunt. That's When He Went Literally Crazy. That's actually my favorite."
Potter says content like this appeals to a certain kind of audience. "I think the people who get this post have one foot in both worlds. [They] are, you know, well-read, very literate, but also are very familiar with today's Internet."
Isaac Fitzgerald is the books editor for BuzzFeed, that grand purveyor of listicles for millennials. (Though, he'd like to state for the record that "listicles" and "millennials" are two of his least favorite words.) He says, "We don't do reviews so much as we want to be your friend who's, like, grabbing your sleeve and saying, 'This is the book that you need to read.' "
BuzzFeed Books is two parts literary pun names for your cat, one part contemporary writing. But writer Karl Taro Greenfeld is skeptical. He says, "If the idea is that Internet users are becoming more educated because they're reading listicles or some sort of Buzzfeed click-bait that is derived from literary content, I think that's a bit specious."
Earlier this year, Greenfeld wrote an op-ed for The New York Times called "Faking Cultural Literacy." He says you don't, in fact, have to be well-read to get this stuff, and he worries that reading content derived from books might replace reading actual books.
"Rather than encouraging one necessarily to go investigate the primary source and actually read Jane Austen," he says, "I wonder if that's actually convincing people that, 'Well, I don't need to read it because I can build some plausible version of thought about this subject without having to read it.' "
If you ask linguist Arika Okrent, who contributes articles (including listicles) to Mental Floss, the listicle itself is a literary form. She points out that the listicle has a predicable structure, like a limerick or a haiku. "It happens to be most commonly used for dumbed-down distraction, but there's nothing about the fact of a list itself that makes that necessary."
People write poetry on Twitter, so why can't they write fiction in the form of lists? If you're despairing about the end of letters at this point, Isaac Fitzgerald has this to say:
"Seriously? I feel like there's no industry that's more obsessed with its own demise than publishing. But it's been like that since the printing press. I'm sure there were just monks that were like, 'Well, what about our hand-painted letter books? Those were the only real books. This printing press stuff is trash.' "
The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, incorrectly states that in "N- - - - - In Paris," Jay Z lists names of basketball players. In fact, he is listing celebrities with the first name Michael.